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Prostitution and the Performing Arts: Tracing the Tawaif Identity in India

When charting the annals of Indian History, prostitution gets a mention as early as in what is considered to be the most ancient literary work of the country - the Rigveda. While the Rigveda also mentions a case of Illicit adulterous love affairs, the jara and jatini (male and female lovers outside of wedlock) differ from the prostitutes. The Vedas contain veiled references to gifts being given to the Prostitute women, as a repayment for their favours, further consolidating that the institution of Prostitution has been prevalent in India since times ancient. What constituted as the exchange of gifts in the remote days of the Barter economy, translates as payment in cash to the prostitutes in return for their sexual favours within the present context. However, the menial lens through which prostitutes and their trade today are perceived, hadn’t been so during the earliest years. In fact, it was with the arrival of the British Raj and the colonial regime, that prostitution in India started acquiring a bestial shade, and prostitutes started being relegated to the status of the depraved. Pre-Colonial India, however, especially during the years of the Mughal Dynasty, bears witness to a positive flourishment of the institute of prostitution.

When tracing the history and emergence of prostitution in India, it is impossible to not bring in the rich cultural heritage of the Performing Arts in the country. In fact, it is through the very schools of Classical music and dance that the prostitutes in India first garnered an independent identity for themselves. The imperative participation and role of the prostitutes in the advancement of these disciplines are oft-forgotten, and hence over the years, have become oft-unknown. But it will be distinctive to know that without them, these schools of Classical Arts in India wouldn’t have found the ceremonies status that they enjoy today.

The Mughal Rule helped consolidate music, dance, and court performances as flagbearers of Cultural Elitism in Medieval India. Over the years, these schools have developed into proper forms of significant performing arts. Traditionally, these performances were reputed as markers of cultural supremacy, while simultaneously being vehicles of entertainment in the courts. Curiously, there existed an inevitable linkage between physical pleasure and entertainment. Such a peculiar association enabled the classification of musicians, singers, dancers and performing women in the court alongside the prostitutes. There existed among the state of women who prostituted, the courtesans, who maintained a certain social relevance, and who, even though they engaged in the act of prostitution, enjoyed the privilege of belonging to the elite circles. These courtesan women were highly skilled in the institutes of music and dance; they were educated in finesse and the fine arts. It was through their very association with the cultural practices of the day that they were renowned, preventing their prostitution from being the sole marker of their independent identities.

Like most institutions in the country, prostitution was one and still is, fraught with hierarchical differences. The 16th Century accounts for the existence of varied classes of these dancing girls. There were the Dominis, the Paturs, the Kumachnis and the Lulis. The Paturs were the celebrated performers belonging to the caste of Hindus, while Lulis constituted the Muslim branch. These were people who gained relevance in the court, among the Kings and their officers, and were very different from the ones performing in the commonplace market.

The prevalence of the Tawaifs during this period marks an important addition to the development of prostitution in India. The Tawaifs were a certain group of the courtesans in the courts described above; they were bands of singing girls, renowned for their performing prowess, beauty and charm, employed in the Mughal Courts by numbers. The tawaif group of courtesans were a class apart from every other performing group of girls and carved a position for themselves in society. The word ‘Tawaif’ when translated from Urdu, means ‘prostitute’.

A Postcard Image of a Tawaif (Courtesan)

The tawaifs were connoisseurs of music and dance in the Mughal courts, and over the 18th century, in the courts of the Nizam, the tawaifs reached the peak of their respectable admiration and social status. They enjoyed the rich patronage of the Mughal rulers and occupied the separate office of the Daftar-e-ArbabNishat. Being artists of a revered kind, the participation of the tawaifs became an inevitable event in all major court ceremonies. They were summoned during all kinds of festivals, including marriages as well as the Bismillah ceremonies and Urs (funeral and anniversary ceremonies for the Sufi saints). Apart from providing entertaining performances before their male patrons, the tawaifs were also summoned to provide sexual gratification to the male aristocrats who paid them a price in return.

Niccolao Manucci notes how the tawaifs were ‘more esteemed than others, by reason of their beauty. When they go to court, to the number of more than five hundred, they all ride in highly embellished vehicles and clothed in rich raiment’ (Manucci). Amritalal Nagar, in his seminal documentation titled Yeh Kothewalian provides an accurate account of the Tawaifs and their practices, mainly in the courts of Lucknow. The courts held frequent mehfils or evening assemblies filled with performances from these dancing girls. Courtesans came and participated in these assemblies, indulging the ministers and officers present with the singing of Thumri, Dadra and ghazal. Possessors of enchanting beauty and commendable abilities, the tawaifs preoccupied the courts with magical charm. Their singing was complemented by bhava, or boisterous shows of hand and facial expressions. The most anticipated of the performances were reserved for the very end, as the night progressed and only genuine aesthetes of the arts were left in the courts to witness. These mehfils also included performances of the Kathak dance.

Tamkeen Kazmi provides a historical account whereby he highlights the hierarchical difference which the tawaifs enjoyed, as they occupied a higher rung in the social ladder, compared to the commonplace prostitutes. The tawaifs, he writes, were “highly cultured women, very disciplined and trained in etiquettes and mannerisms…they were also teachers in mannerisms…”. Such a distinction accounts for the classification of the social duties which the tawaifs were associated with. Besides their bodily and sexual functions, they also were the shareholders of a large reservoir of social functions - such a distinction and simultaneity contest the contemporary status that Prostitution in India has come to occupy.

Mushaira by courtesans in Hyderabad (Wikimedia Commons)

It was with the arrival of the British Raj in India, that the Tawaifs experienced a drastic shift in their occupation of elitism. Survey reports from the 19th century account for how the term Tawaif came to be associated as a mere generic name for Prostitutes. No longer were these women regarded as agents of finesse; they were relegated to the status of the depraved.

However, this shift wasn’t overnight. It was gradual and more systematised. The early years of the British regime saw the emergence of the Nautch Girls. The Nautch Girls were none other than the hoards of women performers who had enjoyed the titles of the tawaif in Pre Colonial India. However, with the new designation of the Nautch Girls in the colonial era, these women no longer were seen as the embodiments of local culture and grace; instead, they were relegated to the mere position of performers, performing only for the sole purpose of entertainment and nothing more. No longer were these women treated as the symbol of rich cultural reservoirs.

Banished from the courts, the nautch girls now frequented the mansions of the English business-class, where they served as entertainers; in certain cases, they performed before the courts of Bengal rulers as well. A well-known routine regarded as graceful was the kite dance, performed to the beat of a slow, expressive tune. The women would mimic the movements of a kite flyer with their gestures.

The romantic adventures of gods or classic love stories, typically focusing on the lover's ardent desire for the beloved, were often the themes of the nautch girls' performances. Persian songs were equally popular with listeners as Hindi songs were until the end of the 19th century.

The 19th Century further saw the advent and popularisation of English education in Indian society. Interpellated within the sophisticated regime of the English, there emerged a bourgeoise class of people in society, dictated by the Western idealism, which now viewed the nautch girls as decadent and vile. The sophisticated Indian individual, shaped within the accords of the Western influence, suddenly seemed to turn a blind eye towards the rich heritage and history of classical Indian performances that the nautch girls embodied. Consequently, there seemingly existed no gap in the social relevance of the professional nautch girl and the devadasi, or the common prostitute, as both these classes of women were now grouped under the carpet-understanding of the depraved, sinful, fallen woman.

Indrani Sen provides an account that, in brief, sums up the newly acquired depraved position of these performing women, as the western consciousness now perceived as them as agents of “Eastern decadence and institutionalised sensuality, occupying a space outside the familiar and containable one of the domestic space”.

Having traced the rise, flourishing and decline of the school of tawaif women in the history of Performance and prostitution in India, one significant question that arises is: how is the history of the tawaifs now enshrined in the Indian consciousness? the resounding answer to the query is that they are no longer remembered as the fine women that they once identified as.

One of the agendas that the colonial regime embodied, was to delegitimize the Mughal Islamic courts in India while casting their practices in light of opulence and decadence; they were seen as hubs of sexual excesses, and the tawaif’s association with these courts, automatically attached a stigma upon their profession and being.

Such an agenda was further enhanced over the 1920s, as India prepared for a cultural revival, under the tag of ‘swaraj’, via the Hinduisation of the Arts. Such a program of associating India’s cultural heritage with a singular religious lineage resulted in the stratified wiping off of the Islamic association of the Tawaifs and their valuable contributions to the field of the Indian Classical artforms.

A performance like the Kathak’s was popularised, but as a branch of the Sanskrit aesthetics and traditions. Its Muslim roots were forgotten and deliberately removed. The tawaif identity, marginalised in terms of both gender and religious community, lost its significance and was misconstrued among the contemporary perception of the times.

Source: Wikimedia Commons

A 1959 issue of the estimated Marg magazine ran an important account recalling the roots of the Kathak dance, propagating how the dance form is etymologically related to Katha, and how it finds its roots in the Sanskrit tradition as well as in the Epic, Mahabharata, Thus, even though the popular form of the Indian Classical Dance, Kathak, came into existence with the advent of the Tawaifs in the Islamic Courts, the Tawaifs were now separated from that recognition. While Kathak found a reputable place in India’s history of the performing arts, claiming a purely Hinduistic space for itself, the true connoisseurs of the art form were now construed as symbols of corruption.

The below account by late Birju Maharaj, eminent Indian dancer belonging to the Kathak Gharana, serves to enhance the position that the tawaif women now occupied :

Hindi cinema has committed a grave mistral by showing Kathak as a dance form performed in brothels…Kathak is not the dace of the brothels. This depiction has adversely affected the dignity of the art form.”

Thus, finally arriving in the twentieth century, under the cultural nationalist agenda of post-colonial India, the Tawaif woman was completely rid off her identity and instead associated with sexual promiscuity. It goes without saying that the same perception exists up until the modern day of the 21st century.



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